Uwe Johnson - He wield his language(s) with a virtuosity surpassed by no other German writer, and makes no concessions to the tastes of public

Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries (Jahrestage), Trans. by Leila Vennewitz, Harcourt, 1975.

"It is - among many other things - a book about the city as seen by a poet with a wayward eye and prose to match. Lingering on the texture of a surface, he can turn the most familiar sight into a revelation. (...) Johnson's prose defies translation: that he survives at all is a minor miracle. One would desperately wish for a major one, because Johnson in the original can be superb. (...) Reading Uwe Johnson in English is better than not reading him at all, because even in this less than perfect version he comes across as an uncommonly original and provocative voice." - Ernst Pawel

"(T)he publication of this fascinating, infuriating, inchoate jumble is something of an event in postwar German literature (.....) Johnson's way, although no doubt tiresome and gimmicky at times, is that of an admirably uncompromising and impressively earnest inventor. Not only does he wield his language(s) with a virtuosity surpassed by - arguably - no other German writer of his generation (God help his translators); he also makes almost no definable concessions to the tastes and habits of the novel-reading public. There's no sex for a start" - Times Literary Supplement

"Clearly, therfore, despite its lighter moments, its superb (and for the most part defensible) waspishness, its grand, ingenious design, and the linguistic subtlety, versatility, and inventiveness which are among Johnson's hallmarks - despite all this and more besides, there is no likelihood Jahrestage will wear well. It is a highly allusive work, addressed much of the time to insiders (.....) If it is much respected and little read, embalmed in academic libraries as a remarkable but increasingly inaccessible relic, no one should be surprised." - G. P. Butler

"[Note: this review refers to and relies on the original German edition, and all translations of quotes are our own. The English translation is an abridged version (authorized by the author), and of the 367 chapters, 64 were cut entirely and only 130 are translated in their entirety.]

Uwe Johnson's Anniversaries (Jahrestage) was originally published in four volumes between 1970 and 1983, but it is a single, unified work. The literal translation of the title is, indeed, 'anniversaries', but can also mean 'days of the year', and it is as both of these meanings that Johnson presents his text. The novel covers, day by day, a year in the life of Gesine Cresspahl, beginning 21 August 1967, and concluding 20 August 1968. Johnson anchors the narrative in the present-day, making Gesine a dedicated and somewhat obsessive reader of The New York Times, and so there are many references to the stories of the day, most every day, and often longer excerpts from the newspaper. At the same time, Gesine is providing a (more or less chronological) account of her past to her ten-year-old daughter, Marie, and there are also present-day domestic scenes from their lives.
Gesine was born 3 March 1933 in Jerichow in Germany, in a part of the country that would become East Germany. She is a single mother who moved to the United States when her daughter was four and who works for a bank. They live in Apartment 204 at 243 Riverside Drive (three rooms, all with a view of the Hudson, for $124.00 a month ...).
Marie is a precocious and independent-minded ten-year-old who has readily and completely adopted New York as her home and who only speaks German (sometimes) with her mother. Gesine's on-going account of her past is delivered in part on tape, to be listened to later by Marie, as well as in their conversations (allowing for interjections and questions by the child): it is often straightforward narrative but occasionally tortured in trying to deal with a difficult past (shifting from recounted history to conversation to letters, etc.).
It's Marie that requests her mother record much of this: "What you're thinking now, what I'll only understand later. Complaints, too." There's a wariness on both sides, about what might be revealed or the sheer weight of it all, but typically they're comforted by their agreement:
- For when I'm dead ?
- Yes. For when you're dead.
Gesine's past covers much of Germany's most troubled times, from the rise of Nazism to the war years to the occupations first (briefly) by the British and then, more permanently, by the Soviets. Her focus in the early years is very much on her parents: a father who had settled in England and was doing well there but then married and followed his wife back to Germany when she wanted to give birth to their child there.
Cresspahl marries into the Papenbrock-family, but he remains an outsider: known as 'the Englishman' (despite being German) he remains friendly with the local Jews even as ugly nationalism rises around them. Tolerant, careful, he tries to keep a low profile and do his best to get through the difficult years: Gesine is able to say "Mein Krieg war gut versteckt" ("My war was well-concealed"), and not just because of Jerichow's remote location. Arguably - Marie has her doubts - he was also an agent for the English, and when they occupied the town after the war the British did make him mayor - a position he filled capably, and one the Soviets (who then were awarded the territory) kept him in (before eventually tossing him in jail).
The flighty, depressive Lisbeth, Gesine's mother, was complicated in different ways, and never made the situation better. She was unhinged enough to watch and do nothing as infant Gesine threatened to drown (Cresspahl happened to witness the scene and plucked her out of danger), and if her violent death isn't a suicide, there's certainly enough reason to believe she would have done herself in eventually. As is, she dies when Gesine is still a small child; fortunately Cresspahl is up to the challenge of raising the girl more or less on his own. (Gesine does remain haunted by the mother-figure: when Marie asks her for her New Year's resolutions 1968, one of them is: "That I don't become like my mother" -- and even though her dread is obvious it's a remarkable admission to make to the child; it throws even the generally unperturable Marie, who tries explains it away for both of them: "You have fever, Gesine.")
Johnson began writing the book on 29 January 1968, and he lucked into quite a year. It's more than back-drop: the period is front and centre, omnipresent. The war in Viet Nam obviously dominates - the first sentence of the first dated entry refers to it ("Clearing weather in North Viet Nam permitted Air Force raids north of Hanoi", etc.) - yet it in its almost daily constancy becomes an almost repetitive drone: Johnson's choice to refer to weather conditions in his opening salvo are apt, since the Viet Nam-reports (much as the daily reports of American fatalities in Iraq have become in 2005 and 2006) resemble nothing as much as the daily weather report, with what (in print if not real life) amount to only small varying details. 1968 would also be the year of the shooting of Rudi Dutschke and assassinations of Martin Luther King jr. and Robert Kennedy (the latter two events that hit Marie harder - or at least more demonstratively - than Gesine), as well as the Prague spring. The Czech connexion is of particular importance, because Gesine is taking Czech lessons, and the book moves towards a planned trip to Prague (indeed, that is where they are set to be the day after the book closes, on 21 August 1968 (a date and place that should resonate for what else was to happen there and then, the Soviets putting a brutal end to the Prague spring)).
Anniversaries is also very much a New York-portrait, with Gesine still a part of immigrant culture while Marie is a full-fledged New Yorker ("Mit New York: sagt sie siegesgewiß, verächtlich: damit legst du mich nicht herein" ("With New York: she said, certain of prevailing, contemptuously: with that you can't fool me") Marie proclaims, knowing that she knows the city better than her mother). It's also a city that isn't doing that well: crime-ridden (their Upper West Side apartment is in what isn't - at that time - a great neighbourhood, and it sounds like they're lucky only to be robbed once over the course of the year), with racial tension, as well political unrest.
Race figures prominently too: Gesine won't stand for any racism, and proves more open-minded than most of the locals - an attitude similar to that of her father, and which she passes on to her daughter. Among the many sub-plots is Francine, the token black girl who winds up in Marie's class at the exclusive private school she attends. Unlike her classmates, Marie feels an obligation to assist the child who is completely out of her element. Johnson's girl is, at times, arguably too precocious, but even something as difficult as this he handles well, convincingly having Marie express her frustration at the injustice perpetrated on Francine, who has, for example, never been taught how to learn.
Francine and her family are types - snapshots of a world largely beyond his ken - but for all that Johnson handles them well, without condescension (largely by describing it through Marie's experiences, and never having, for example, Gesine try to be buddies with Francine's mom or anything like that). Even brave Marie has difficulty in venturing more than once to Francine's tenement home; later, Francine's mother is injured in a violent incident, and it's only natural for the Cresspahls to take in the girl (as the other children are scattered in foster homes and elsewhere), a reaching out that mirrors Gesine's fathers attempts to reach out to strangers and locals when Gesine was a child (even as it probably strikes most American readers as utterly absurd). Again, the unlikely situation works because Johnson does not paint an easy idyll, but rather suggests the actual difficulties such an arrangement would pose: it is here that Marie is presented at her most childish (and thus, in some ways, most believable), fundamentally decent and trying to be helpful but also irritated by this foreign presence who herself feels so very much out of her element. Hands-off Gesine offers a secure environment that allows Francine the space to adapt, and Johnson captures this transition well -- and without forcing a happy end: Francine goes home again (and is ultimately a lost child), the status quo barely changed (and, yes, even Marie sighs somewhat in relief).
It is a political time, and while Gesine does not shy away from it, she almost tries to keep it at a certain remove. (Ironically, the reader sees her hurtling towards one of the decisive historical moments of the age, knowing the trip she is long planning - Prague - and knowing the date on which the book ends, one day before the fateful and dreadful 21 August 1968.) It's no wonder she prefers the black-and-white accounts from the day after as provided in the newspaper, refusing even to get a television despite Marie's frequent appeals. (It's after RFK's assassination that Marie decides enough is enough: she needs her mother's signature on the rental agreement, but she's the one that hires a television (and pays the $19.50 cost) - and has it set up in her room.) It's Marie, too, that is the more active, louder with her outrage, eager to go to the marches and parades, caught up in the immediacy of things in a way that Gesine, who has seen and lived through so much, is not. On 1 May 1968 Gesine looks to Europe, but Marie has left that long behind, caught up in the here and now in a way that her mother can't seem to keep up with: - Was geht's dich an ! du hast bloß mal da gewohnt ! sagt Marie.
- Da hab ich bloß mal gewohnt.
- Hier aber haben wir eine Revolution, bloß zwanzig Blocks von unserer Haustür !
- Hast du sie gesehen ?
- Den fünften Nachmittag heute ! Selbst du solltest es wissen aus deiner Zeitung. Müßte deine Tante dir doch gesagt haben.
(- What concern is it of yours ! you just lived there once ! Marie says.
- I just lived there once.
- But here we have a revolution, just twenty blocks from our door !
- You saw it ?
- The fifth afternoon today ! Even you should know it, from your newspaper. Your aunt should have told you
.)
(The 'aunt' of course being the old grey lady, The New York Times)
Even Gesine is a bit shocked at Marie running underfoot at the Columbia-protests, and admittedly the girl's unsupervised gallivanting across town is one of the less believable elements of the book. Canny and wise beyond her years, the girl is still just ten and it's hard to believe any mother would let a child that age run about (and take the subway) as freely as Gesine does.
Eager to protest and make her objections to injustice known, Marie nevertheless has wholeheartedly embraced America. She is, for all intents and purposes, an American girl, and among the few things about her that seem to annoy Gesine is the girl's unquestioning anti-communism. It's not that Gesine necessarily disapproves of the attitude itself, but rather that Marie has bought into that party line unthinkingly: communism is simply an evil, enough said -- but Gesine knows from experience that it's all more complicated than that. Gesine is also far more ambivalent about the America she has made their home. Marie can protest the war in Viet Nam and the military-industrial complex and still live happily within the system, but Gesine is nowhere near as comfortable. "Wo ist die moralische Schweiz, in die wir emigrieren könnten ?" ("Where is that moral Switzerland to which we could emigrate ?") she asks herself only half-jokingly - as experience has taught her that there is no place that allows such neutrality (hence also the question referring to a "moral Switzerland", rather than Switzerland itself, a country that can stand for neutrality without actually being that).
Some men do vie for Gesine's attention, but she's careful about letting anyone get too close. She doesn't reveal much about Marie's father, and admits on one of those tapes that she leaves for when she's dead that she can't let anyone (save her daughter) close for fear of losing them: "Ich will diesen Schmerz nicht noch einmal" ("I don't want that pain again"). The scientist Erichson - known as D.E. - is a frequent visitor and close friend, but as much an uncle-figure to the child as lover for Gesine.
Among the playful asides are some swats at German literati: Hans Magnus Enzensberger's open letter in The New York Review of Books (explaining why he resigned from his appointment at Wesleyan), picked apart over half a dozen pages, or a report in The New York Times on West German author 'Günther Glass' (his name more readily misspelt pre-Nobel prize) - and there are even some Uwe Johnson sightings, including an awkward question-and-answer session at a Jewish American Congress event.
Anniversaries is a very long book; remarkably, it hardly ever flags. The variety of narrative techniques - quotation, different voices and perspectives - help keep the reader focussed, and the different storylines (Gesine's past, Gesine's present, Marie's present, the world at large) are woven together well. It is a history of Germany, 1933 to ca. 1953, as well as of 1968 America. It is about the experience of being a European emigrant, and about being an almost-teen in the late 60s. It is about past and present and, emphatically, morality in its broadest senses. It is about society -- German and American, and society under Nazi, communist, and capitalist systems - and works as such because it isn't a moralising text and offers little forced philosophical exposition and debate: Johnson shows by example and experience. The major characters - father Cresspahl, Gesine, Marie - act, and while they don't or can't always do right, and can't always be sure of what they do, they are, in their different ways, exemplary.
Johnson mixes things up enough to keep readers alert - tossing in a grocery list (on snowy 29 December), notes for a school-essay on RFK (6 June), even variations on the colour yellow (in New York - 1 August). But it's with the effective repeated use (but not over-use) of newspaper-detail - all those bits of reality which can never be kept at bay - as well as, especially, the mother-daughter back-and-forth that Johnson achieves so much momentum. Much of the story is most powerful when Gesine is not, in fact, front and centre: especially the parts about her parents and then her father are more interesting than when she figures more prominently in her own story of childhood and youth. But in the present, and especially in her dealings at work and at home, Johnson presents a remarkably full character-portrait - enlivened also by the challenging semi-equal, Marie (who, after all, doesn't call her 'Mammi' or anything of that sort, but simply: Gesine).
There are some lapses: an odd kidnapping episode seems out of place, and much of volume three seems off-pace, but overall it's a remarkable and consistent accomplishment. For what looks like a diary-book it's, in fact, a compelling novel, and in the three generation-representatives of Cresspahl, Gesine, and Marie a book with three superbly rendered characters. For insight into life in Germany in the 1930s, and in New York in the 1960s - admittedly both times from a particular vantage point - it bears comparison to the best literary portraits of those eras and places.
It is a lot to tackle, but it is a book that is in every sense substantial, and ultimately very much worth the time. (The effort, too, one might add, but it doesn't really require much effort, readily engaging the reader.) Certainly a book that will endure, deserving of a place beside the best of the most ambitious post-World War II German novels (such as The Tin Drum, The Aesthetics of Resistance, and The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice as Chronicled by her Minstrel Laura)." - The Complete Review

"Uwe Johnson never quite knew what to do with the self-satisfied authority of superlatives. He was interested in the inconclusive, the ambiguous, and preferred observing things from the edge. The texture of a frame seemed to him more revealing than the painting, the smell of ink on one’s fingers more revealing than the content of a newspaper article. He had originally wanted to call his novel The Third Book about Achim something different: Description of a Description, which would have been the more apt title. Thus, he would only have quietly shaken his bald head and tapped out his pipe ashes when confronted with a statement like: Anniversaries is the best novel ever written about America in the German language. Nevertheless, it is true.
Anniversaries was conceived as a book of normal length, but became a life’s work, in the true sense of the word. Johnson worked for fifteen years, and sometimes he was defeated. It would take him 1,900 pages to finish, and in reading one quickly realizes that even a single page less would have been a problematic simplification. (It is all the more inexplicable that there has only been an abridged version published in English.) After the last of its four volumes appeared, he died at the early age of 49. He was very lonely in the end; life on the edge had turned into solitude. He was found in his house in England three weeks after he died.
For all its bulk, though, the book doesn’t give you much time to decide against reading it. Two long sentences, to be precise:
Long waves sweep slanting against the beach, hump muscled backs, raise trembling combs that tip over at the greenest summit. The taut roll, already streaked with white, enfolds a hollow space of air that is crushed by the clear mass as if a secret had been created and destroyed there.
Yes, I will read you, I thought, as I finished these lines last summer. I would begin Anniversaries on an anniversary – August 20th, 2009 – and planned to read its 365 entries in 365 days.
Anniversaries follows the form of a diary. It begins on August 20th, 1967, at the New Jersey coast, and ends exactly one year later, when Russian tanks invade Prague. To describe what happens in between seems almost out of the question; the book is more of a literary landscape than a novel, and a mountain wants to be climbed, not surveyed. Once, when Johnson was asked to summarize the plot before a reading, he talked for one and a half hours (no time was left for the reading itself) not because the plot was so extravagant, but because some books are long for a reason, and because some novels about the passing of time need time to pass instead of just claiming that it passes. One needs to actually read them in order to respect them, just as Hannah Arendt wanted to call a life a life only after it was lived.
The particular life we follow in Anniversaries belongs to Gesine Cressphal, who works as a translator in a Manhattan bank. She was born into Hitler’s Reich and grew up in East Germany, where, in many offices and classrooms soon after the war, pictures of Hitler were simply replaced by portraits of Stalin. Gesine has learned early on how to lie; when she arrives in New York, “freedom” isn’t much more than a word. She has left behind in Germany a dead husband, Jakob. He didn’t exactly die peacefully. (In fact, Jakob has been the protagonist of Johnson’s earlier novel Speculations about Jakob. As with Faulkner, whom Johnson admired almost more than any other writer, Johnson’s books are intertwined over decades, full of connections, rumors, and secrets between people and places, like an old neighborhood. Johnson refused to bring characters into life just to have them suffocate between the boards of a book. During his time in New York, Johnson would sometimes say to his acquaintances that he just ran into Gesine Cressphal at Grand Central. He was actually serious.)
From August of 1967 to August of 1968, at a rate of one entry per day, Gesine tells her daughter the story of her life and asks – as Johnson does in all of his writing – What brought us here? She talks about her father who, in his hometown of Jerichow in Mecklenburg, saw the evil of Nazism approaching but nevertheless accommodated himself to it in order to not lose his family. She talks about her mother who once tried to let little Gesine drown in a rain barrel. She talks about time and guilt and why one passes and the other doesn’t. She also deals with religion, Vietnam, and America as the fetish of our world – but only marginally. Throughout, a larger question looms: Is it possible, after all, that the truth doesn’t have an essence, only edges?
Long before it became the duty of cultural theorists to damn it, Johnson was mistrusting “truth.” For him, it was no more palpable than memory, which Gesine likens to a cat: “independent, incorruptible, intractable. And yet a comfortable companion, when it puts in an appearance, even if it stays out of reach.” Perhaps one learns this automatically, growing up during a dictatorship.
And yet, as a reader, I can’t let go of truth – not for moral reasons but because nothing else touches me. The truth I look for in a novel has little to do with what is depicted, with the characters or historical details. It lies instead in what one might call the tone. Over time, I forget much of what I read; only this tone stays with me. But when is a tone truthful? When is it authentic? I suppose the answer has something to do with what is personal and peculiar, with what Nabokov called, when he spoke about exhilarating reading and writing experiences, “looking through glasses which will fit no one else.” The dialect of a text, something between the lines, more audible than actually readable, its volume, its acoustic color… The hidden lust for life in Thomas Mann’s books. The curiosity and angst (those twin sisters) in Kafka’s. With people, too, one knows after a few sentences whether one wants to show them one’s favorite café.
Many North Germans feel more familiar with the English temper than with, say, the Bavarian temper. Johnson’s language has much of this polite and confident restraint, which, in every sentence, hides as much as it displays. He barely dares to say “I.” To mistake this for frigidity, however, is a popular misunderstanding, about Johnson as much as about North Germans.
When Max Frisch, one of his few long-term friends, said that it’s not the writer who finds his language, but vice versa, it was especially true for Johnson. He approaches his sentences carefully; he doesn’t triumph over them by stretching them into long technically obsessed hypotaxis or by brutally shortening them into bossy staccatos (both of which we Germans know how to do very well.) Sometimes he inadvertently falls into an English syntax shorter and more flexible than German, a syntax that flows where the German constricts. He seems to let the sentences have the shapes they chose for themselves. This has nothing to do with the trivial concept of the “death of the author.” Johnson always remains tangible in the background, but discreetly, like a concerned father who secretly hides in the car when his daughter goes to her first party. He believes in narrative, but wants neither the dubious dominance of an omnipotent narrator nor a visa into the anonymous universe of texts and textures. For where there’s no narrator, there can be no responsibility – and of course writing was for Johnson an act of social conscience.
In the Sixties, in Germany, literature and politics were still strongly looking to communicate with each other; the “Gruppe 47,” in which Günter Grass, Heinrich Böll and many others grew as writers, was regarded as a moral authority. Johnson was perhaps the most intellectual among them; certainly he was the quietest. In a time of heated debates, his tone was laconic. Lacking the vanity required for outright outrage, he analyzed where others barked. He didn’t have to be politicized by loud agitation; the infringement of political power on private life had already shaped him in his youth, when he refused to denounce “hostile elements.” It is said that the division of Germany first came into literature with Johnson, that he was a representative for the people whose lives were, like his, shaped by living in East Germany. But nothing was farther from him than to draw a line under German misery. He didn’t want to conjure up a “zero hour” or a new beginning which was as clamorous as it was convenient. The present, in his work, is too full of the past. Gesine Cresspehl always hears the voices of the dead and calls upon them when she needs them, just as Johnson’s calm and serious tone resembles someone remembering those forgotten by time. Anniversaries, then, is a singular monument to justice, unraveling the fates of dozens of people over a span of forty years along the eternal conflict of assimilation and protest.
As I’ve moved through it over the last several months, it has been the curious unity of thoughtfulness and definiteness, of irony and moral seriousness that has fascinated me most. Alone, each is more often than not hard to bear. But Johnson both respects and distrusts language. He plays with it and, in the next moment, forces it to be austere. If he gets carried away with a pun, a dramatic turn or even just a jaunty image – for example with a waiter who “tucks a smile into his mustache” – then it seems as if he wants to apologize for it in the next sentence, as if he needed to put a stop to what mustn’t get out of control.
Johnson is a moralist, but not a polemicist who would lose his authority by putting himself above his topic, even for the sake of a laugh. His sentences are humorous in themselves, but don’t tell jokes; they’re chucklers, not kneeslappers. He knows better than to celebrate the violence of a Nazi-gang with rhetorical drama, and he portrays them instead as a pathetic but brutal amateur dramatic performance. One is almost relieved when he suddenly describes a Nazi official as a pig, only to be brought up short by the ironic twist that follows: “Not in any metaphorical sense, simply on the basis of physical similarity.”
Admittedly, he isn’t easy on his readers: He rushes them through places, times and several narrative levels, at times – dauntingly, within one sentence. The frame of the plot is complex; the structure of the journal is porous. Sometimes Gesine is the narrator, sometimes she is being narrated. She merges into the narrative and surfaces again, unexpectedly. Sometimes she is in dialogue with the author himself – in Plattdeutsch, the Low German dialect. Perhaps this, too, has roots in an adolescence defined by state power, when not being too direct can save one’s life.
But the unity is greater than that; it’s as if the peculiar was only made discernible by the random. The more complex a truth is, the harder it is to bind it into sentences, and one will be more successful looking for it in the margins. Johnson approaches the truth like a partisan, indirectly; but where postmodernity often circles narcissistically around an empty center, Johnson fulfills his self-imposed task – depicting the embrace of political history and personal biography - by sometimes losing sight of it. Gesine, for example, is addicted to reading The New York Times, which she respectfully calls a “stubborn old aunt,” and which doesn’t only report the number of crosses erected on American military cemeteries during the Vietnam war, but also what wood they were made from and where it was cut.
As with a picture that loses its sharp contours as we move closer, one can get dizzy in the face of this abundance of details and episodes, the branching out of coincidences and allusions, a cocoon in which (hi)story lies like a larva. But Johnson’s language is always both concrete and allegorical. As smooth as the surface seems, there is above it a large space for reverberations.
Anniversaries is, above all, a novel about guilt. I have never read a book that dissects guilt with such precision and empathy without ever losing the clarity of its point of view. Evil is not personified in Johnson’s novels; it remains nameless, and thus threatening. Characters are people, not incarnations, and they are all entangled in their own time, their own space. That Johnson avoids a quick verdict doesn’t weaken his judgments. On the contrary, his moral questions gain power precisely by being less flexible for the lookers-on and hangers-on: the readers, us. The attraction of accusing others, which often lies in the suggestion of one’s own innocence, is what Johnson denies us; we are drawn closer already during the process of reading, by gazing into the abyss – just like Gesine’s mother, who sees synagogues burning and a Jewish girl dying during the Kristallnacht of November 9, 1938, and hours later goes into the flames herself.
Any kind of over-dramatization seems to embarrass Johnson, and yet his prose is distant and serene only as long as we stubbornly swing from one word to the next while the seething has started beneath us. No sentence in itself gives in to the fury of horror―but just as every bright photograph has a disturbingly dark negative, so also is the beauty of Johnson’s language one that chokes on itself. It describes an execution as indifferently as it describes the ocean “crocheting delicate fringes to the land.” And seemingly all of a sudden, the stores of the Jewish cloth merchants in Jerichow are burning.
Here is what’s most disturbing about Johnson’s language: that the barbarism takes hold of it so gradually, just as with people, where it may have hidden in all-too-familiar notions of envy or fear or pain. The idea that evil rages with unmistakable thunder right from the start provides us, in the present, with a false reassurance. When Hitler’s soldiers marched into Poland, Mein Kampf had been standing on German bookshelves for 14 years already.
Anniversaries studies Germany from the viewpoint of New York for a reason. Martin Luther King is shot in Memphis, and one week later the revolutionary leader of the student movement, Rudi Dutschke, is shot in Berlin. In 1968, the New World present merges with the Old World past. Wrong wars are being fought. Capitalism falters, but Communism also fails. There have been worse times than ours to rediscover Uwe Johnson.
It is worth noting, in this connection, that Anniversaries is a Heimatroman, a “home-novel.” The word Heimat, which can be your home or home country, bears a burden, a patina unlike any other German word. Its proximity to Unheimlichkeit (uncanniness) is definitely appropriate. Origin always needs the gaze of someone looking back or coming back in order to become Heimat; it only exists with distance, loss, and in the realization of the past. For Kafka, only death was a true Heimat, the actual good place.
The fact that his beloved New York didn’t need to embrace or suffocate him like a homeland was a relief to Uwe Johnson as much as to Gesine. “True,” he wrote,
our home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is imaginary. The process of addiction to the area has been solely on our side, we cannot expect the others to reciprocate. And yet, an hour’s walk through the neighborhood inoculates us for years against moving away.
To read Anniversaries in New York, in its own rhythm, over the course of one year, has been like looking doubtfully at long-hidden pictures from the wild youth of an old lady. One will see her with different eyes from now on. And like hearing at least one familiar voice every day.
Like Anniversaries, New York is “crowded with the past, with presence.” The dialectic of freedom and constraint has always been more palpable here than anywhere else in the world. Freedom and promises can rise like water up to one’s neck; where everything seems possible, the road to nothingness seems very short. (Tell me your city, I’ll tell you mine.) But since reading Anniversaries I feel more at home in this foreign land – as if I had returned after a long time and as if Gesine Cressphal’s presence were my past and Johnson’s sentences the echo of my memory. Whoever recognizes something is at home. I’ve been here before." - Fridolin Schley

Kurt Fickert "Names and Themes in Uwe Johnson’s Jahrestage"

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